The Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO) is on the right track in leading central government’s digital transformation, but there is a need for more relevant expertise to maintain the momentum, according to the National Audit Office (NAO).
It has also said that for government to achieve the major efficiency savings required, those running departments need to improve their understanding of digital transformation.
NAO has made the points in a new report, Digital transformation in government: addressing the barriers to efficiency.
It highlights HM Treasury’s £8 billion Spending Review commitment in 2021 to invest in digital, data and technology (DDaT), and the role of the CDDO and its transformation roadmap for 2022-25.
It says the organisation – based in the Cabinet Office – has taken a collaborative approach with departments to address past failings, been realistic about what could be achieved through six missions, and established several mechanisms for monitoring progress.
Milestones and risks
CDDO has reported that the early milestones for the missions have been reached, but also that existing risks have become more acute.
Among these is that the core element of the new GOV.UK One Login service has been launched, but departments may not prioritise its integration with their existing services. Others include that departments might find it onerous to collect data across DDaT operations to assess their efficicency, and that there are difficulties in sharing and using data across government.
The report adds that CDDO’s small budget and headcount are already affecting the intended reforms in central government, and that departments are struggling to acquire the necessary digital expertise.
This prompts recommendations that CDDO should step up its formal training and mentoring, work with HM Treasury to address departments’ spending requirements, push for central reforms in how digital change is justified, funded and procured, and review what departments can realistically achieve.
Head of the NAO Gareth Davies said: "The creation of the Central Digital and Data Office provides fresh impetus for digital transformation across government. Its roadmap is a good step towards addressing systemic issues and encouraging departments to take action.
"However, to maintain momentum, government needs stronger digital expertise and sustained support from senior departmental leaders. Otherwise, these latest efforts will peter out and government will not achieve the savings and efficiencies that digital transformation has long promised."
More broadly, the report also finds that that most digital change decisions in government are made by generalist leaders who lack the expertise to fully comprehend and tackle digital challenges.
In response, it says that government should build digital capability and support for non-specialist leaders to understand the issues posed by legacy data and systems. It urges individual departments to appoint at least one non-executive director with digital, data and technology expertise and ensure that membership of their most senior decision making board includes at least one senior digital leader.
Other recommendations are that there should be senior service owners for all major services, and an approach to stop new services being built on existing costly and inefficient legacy foundations.
The report also points out that the government already has a specialist skills deficit, with only 4% of civil servants being digital professionals, compared with an industry average of between 8% and 12%. The number of government digital vacancies rose from 3,900 in April 2022 to 4,100 in October 2022 and 37% of recruitment campaigns were unsuccessful.
Chair of Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee Meg Hillier MP said: “It's very encouraging to see the Central Digital and Data Office has taken on my committee’s feedback on digital transformation in government and how fundamental barriers must not be ignored.
“Today’s NAO report shows it has begun to address the underlying issues which have frustrated previous attempts to transform and has helped departments secure funding for investment in digital change over the next three years.
“While it has laid the foundations, it is now up to departments' business leaders to step up and understand what is needed to lead digital change so government can achieve real efficiencies.”